It’s a Wiggly World

The first generation of Wiggles fans are adults now – and 30 years on, their kids are dancing and playing in a more diverse and inclusive Wiggleverse.

When the Wiggles’ line-up changes, who sees red: children or parents?

“Parents, a hundred per cent,” laughs Anthony Field AM, better known as the Blue Wiggle.

“And politicians,” adds Evie Ferris, apprentice of sorts to the Wiggle elder, though already sporting the cheekiness needed to excel in kids’ entertainment.

She’s alluding to Nationals Senator Matthew Canavan, whose potato recently got a little too hot upon learning that Australia’s leading preschool artistes had added four new, culturally diverse performers to their roster. “It was nice while it lasted,” he told The Australian. “But you go woke, you go broke.” His assertion is, at time of writing, yet to be verified (despite it rhyming). Meanwhile, the Wiggles’ estimated net worth holds steady at $50 million.

“I’ve always wanted the Wiggles to be diverse,” says Field, 58, who co-founded the rainbow juggernaut back in 1991. He says the impetus to finally “go woke” – or, in transparent terms, update the group’s line-up to accurately reflect Australian society – came while taping The Wiggles’ World (2020) for ABC TV. Broadway star James Harkness, who plays a cafe owner on the show, observed to Field that while people of colour are frequent guests in the Wiggleverse, they don’t get to don the iconic blue, red, yellow and purple skivvies that are core to the stars’ fruitful brand. “He said, ‘To me, as a Black man, that says, You can’t be part of the real club,’” Field recalls. “So I really wanted to do it right. I thought, When Evie, John, Kelly and Tsehay join, let’s give them Wiggle colours.

The new Wiggles debuted in September on Fruit Salad TV: a hypercolour web series “dedicated to celebrating and embracing all Australians”, released exclusively on the band’s YouTube channel. Both episodes were written by Field in consultation with Professor Michael McDaniel AO, the Pro‑Vice-Chancellor (Indigenous Leadership and Engagement) at the University of Technology Sydney. “He was so brilliant at advising me,” Field says. “He told me that 10 per cent of people are going to absolutely love it, 10 per cent are going to really dislike it, then there’s all the people in the middle.

“He said, ‘It’s a courageous decision, but if you don’t do it, you risk marginalising children who don’t see reflections of themselves up there on the screen.’”

“It’s such a beautiful, important message,” says Ferris, a 24-year-old Taribelang and Djabugay woman born in Cairns, now living in Melbourne, with a day job at the Australian Ballet (she’s only the second First Nations woman to join the company). Since every Wiggle needs a shtick, blue pointe shoes are part of her costume.

Though Ferris cites the Wiggles as her first concert as a kid, her path didn’t properly cross with Field’s until 2016, backstage at the Sydney Opera House. She was there dancing in the ballet; he, playing bagpipes for Barnesy. “Anthony needed someone to take a photo of him,” Ferris says. “I was that person.” The two got talking, formed a friendship, and started collaborating on bits and pieces, including the ‘We’re All Fruit Salad!’ music video released in March to commemorate the Wiggles’ 30th anniversary. “It could have been anyone in the green room to take that photo,” says Ferris.

“I’m a big believer in the universe putting people together,” says Field, who hand-picked the new Wiggles – Evie (blue), Kelly Hamilton (yellow), John Pearce (purple) and Tsehay Hawkins (red) – based on his knowledge of their previous work, plus a bit of gut feeling for good measure. “John lives around the corner from me,” he says. “I kept running into him so many times, I thought, There has to be a reason for this.

“There was no audition,” says Field. “It was just basically, ‘Would you guys like to do this?’” But before any new recruits could climb aboard the big red car destined for stardom, the seasoned Wiggle – who’s long been honest about his experiences with chronic pain and depression, as exacerbated by life in the public eye – spoke plain. “The spotlight is going to be on you like never before,” he told the incoming Wiggles. “And, you know, sometimes I worry about that.”

Wiggles Anthony, Emma, Simon and Lachy.It’s Sydney, 1991, and three Macquarie University students are itching to start a band. Not to emulate the grunge lords or hip-hop mix-masters defining the zeitgeist, but to road test their degrees in early childhood education. Field, along with fellow mature-aged pupils Murray Cook and Greg Page, have their hearts set on enchanting the toddler crowd with fun, kid-friendly, instructive rock’n’roll.

It helps that the guys have all been in bands before. Field co-founded pub rock outfit the Cockroaches, for whom Page was a roadie and occasional vocalist. Cook played guitar around the traps – most notably for Finger Guns, if only because their name presaged what would become the signature hand gesture of his nascent new group. To flesh out their desired pop‑rock sound, Field rings in former bandmate Jeff Fatt on keys, plus composer Phillip Wilcher, who plays a crucial role in their early songwriting before leaving in 92 to pursue a career in the financially lucrative but artistically desolate field of classical music. Echoing the Cockroaches song ‘Mr Wiggle’s Back in Town’, and honouring their target demo’s signature moves, they christen themselves “The Wiggles”. Their eponymous debut album – which opens with a rejigged version of the aforesaid Cockroaches’ track, now titled ‘Get Ready to Wiggle’ – drops in August 91 and sells 100,000 copies before Christmas.

But the Wiggles don’t truly crack the code of kiddie hypnotism until they embrace the sartorial art of colour-blocking. In 92, each member adopts their own unique shade and, with it, commitment to a skivvy-based wardrobe. Field takes blue; Page, yellow; Cook, red; and Fatt, purple. Field predicts this will help kids identify them, and it works a treat – possibly resulting in an overcorrection. Parents start reporting that little ones refer to colours by the corresponding Wiggles’ name: “My child doesn’t call purple ‘purple’. She calls it ‘Jeff’,” Field remembers. Others plead, “Can you do something in short pants? My son won’t go anywhere without long pants on.”

The group’s wholesome star continues to rise throughout the 90s as their hit machine pumps out such jams as ‘Fruit Salad’, ‘Hot Potato’, ‘Big Red Car’ and ‘Wake Up Jeff!’. They corner the home entertainment market with cassettes, CDs, VHS tapes and, eventually, a feature film – The Wiggles Movie (1997) – all despite (or, perhaps, due to) their audience outgrowing them every three years or so. When the Wiggles nail the US market in the early 2000s, thanks largely to an international distribution deal with Disney, they start booking over 500 gigs a year. In 2009, their annual revenue reaches $45 million. Even when the global recession strikes in 2011, they still earn a cool $28 million.

All that cold spaghetti takes its toll, though, and in mid-2012 – after 20 years on the road with arguably Australia’s hardest-working band – Page, Cook and Fatt decide to retire. This is actually Page’s second departure, as he first left in late 2006 due to health concerns. That’s when understudy Sam Moran took on the yellow jersey full-time, only for Page to return (for a spell) in 2012, before passing the torch to back-up dancer Emma Watkins in early 2013. She became not only the first woman Wiggle, but a playgroup sensation unto herself. At this time, Simon Pryce also took over for Cook, and Lachlan Gillespie for Fatt, rounding out the Wiggles’ squad as it looks today – save for the recent additions – with Field continuing as the band’s only original member. But while their faces sometimes change, the Wiggles’ song remains the same, appealing to children around the world with earworm persistence and polychrome cheer.

So, what qualities make for an ideal Wiggle? “From what I’ve seen, working with the OG,” says Ferris, “compassion and genuine care for kids. Working closely with the Wiggles this year, they really embody those qualities.

“Right before we started filming, I remember Anthony said, ‘There’s being childlike and childish. There’s a big difference,’” Ferris explains, noting that the Wiggles’ wide-eyed performance style, delivered not to a live crowd (yet) but down the barrel of a camera, takes some fine‑tuning. “I definitely had to overcome a bit of self-consciousness,” she says. “But it just makes sense, in that environment. It’s easy to believe in what you’re doing.”

“You lose any inhibitions when you’re working with children,” says Field. “I’ve never felt silly doing what we do. Even though we are silly, I’ve never felt silly,” he stresses. “This is what my audience wants, so I’m going to do it.” He says honesty is his most cherished trait in a Wiggle. Kids can spot disingenuity a mile off.

“All those years ago at Macquarie University, we learned about how children think, and we tried to reflect their world in what we do,” says Field. “I think Fruit Salad TV is trying to reflect a broader world. There are lots of audiences out there from different areas, different worlds, different cultures.” Nothing’s made that so clear as the technological changes that have shaped the Wiggles’ career trajectory.

“When we started, technology was a letter and a stamp,” he laughs. “We had cassette tapes and LPs, so yeah, things have changed, but you get instant feedback. You can put something on YouTube and know what part of the world’s watched it, what part of the world stayed on longer, or where you’re not connecting.” He mentions plans to reignite interest in the Spanish- and Mandarin-speaking Wiggles, who never quite hit their stride in the mid-00s, before citing the work that fans do online to ensure the Wiggles’ longevity.

“These days, things get put up on TikTok. Somebody put up [Shirley Shawn the Unicorn] and said, ‘Hey, look, the Wiggles have got a non-binary unicorn!’ And then the word got out, not through our TV show, but through social media,” he says. While news of a costumed mascot using “they/them” pronouns got the goat of conservative lobbyist Lyle Shelton back in August, it may have also saved a life. “We had a beautiful email from a teenager who said, ‘I had the strength to come out,’” says Field. “I thought that was just fantastic.”

This isn’t the only time a stranger has uploaded Wiggles content to the world wide web, catalysing controversy. In October 2020, a clip from Wiggle House (2014) surfaced on Twitter, featuring the song ‘Pappadum’. It was written by Field, and the accompanying video drew on Indian stereotypes. When users explained the ways in which both the song and video were offensive, Field replied, “It was not my intention to be culturally insensitive to the Indian community, or to add value to ethnic stereotyping. Apologies.” The song has been pulled from the Wiggles’ repertoire.

Today, he asks Ferris, “What did Christine Anu say the other day? ‘If you can see it, you can be it.’” That begs the question: where to from here, for the next 30 years?

“Keep remaining child-centred, keep writing catchy songs, just keep evolving…and, also, keep it fun,” says Field. “I think we’re on the right track. I’m more proud of this than anything we’ve achieved. So I think this is the real way to go.”

“Exactly,” says Ferris. “It’s a really relevant project and I think it’s going to change a lot of people’s lives. It probably already has. Who knows what it will lead to, but I think something great.

“Your guidance through the whole process,” she says to Field, “I think that’s why we get great feedback – because you’re allowing us to be ourselves, but also guiding us to do the right thing.”

“It’d be wrong to have four clones, everyone being the same person,” he replies. “I can’t wait till Evie, John, Kelly and Tsehay are in front of a live audience with us, in front of children,” says Field. “And this is me, personally,” he adds, engaging that textbook Wiggle sincerity, “I want the Wiggles to always be, from this moment, inclusive and diverse. I don’t want to go back.”

By Aimee Knight.

First published in ed#646